Detroit has produced some of the greatest music of modern time. Often, however, the folks who've been more successful behind the scenes don't get the local recognition they deserve. Such is the case with the Detroit-bred Allee Willis, who left the D to go onto a life as one of the more important songwriters of the pop era, penning hits for artists ranging from Aretha Franklin and Earth, Wind & Fire to Fishbone and Cher. She's worked with such legends as Bob Dylan and James Brown but may best be known for co-writing the power-pop theme song from the Friends TV show as performed by the Rembrandts.
The songwriter was back in town recently for the opening of the Detroit run of the Broadway musical, The Color Purple, for which she composed the music with fellow Detroit native (and former Madonna collaborator) Steven Bray. She was honored at her Mumford High alma mater during her time here and was presented with an official commendation by the Detroit City Council. Willis also took time to reflect on growing up in the Motor City and how it continues to be a muse for her work.
METRO TIMES: How exactly and specifically did Detroit influence you and your songwriting?
ALLEE WILLIS: I loved growing up here. I grew up in the '50s and '60s when Motown was just coming up. I used to drive by the two little houses on Grand Boulevard at least twice a week, sometimes sit on the front lawn to watch people like Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves and songwriters like Lamont Dozier, who I write with today, walk in. A lot of times I could hear a bass line or background vocal leak through the walls. I used to write Berry Gordy fan letters. He made me so proud to live in Detroit! My adoration of soul in general came from listening to Martha Jean "The Queen" on WCHB and WJLB. And I love cars. So it was always a feast for the eyes as people used to get new cars every year. Also, my father owed a junkyard on Mt. Elliot that had that car crusher that pounds Cadillacs into coffee table-sized cubes. So I spent every Saturday climbing on stacks of cars and toilet pipes, finding hundreds of comic books in the paper crusher, putting together sets of antique dishes. My lust for collecting vintage — I have one of the oldest and most documented collections of modern, soul and kitsch artifacts in the world — began in Detroit. My style in everything today — music, art, video, technology, collecting and my lifestyle in general — is a combination of the high- and low-life I lived in Detroit. Also, in those years, the city was an amazing juxtaposition of past, present and future. That remains my state of being to this day.
MT: What year did you leave Detroit?
WILLIS: I left in 1965 to go to the University of Wisconsin in Madison for four years. But I spent every summer vacation in Detroit, including in 1968, when I got a job at the Northwest Detroiter newspaper. The News and Free Press were on strike, so all of a sudden, I was writing articles on the Kennedy assassination and whether Nixon would get re-elected. Sounds impressive, but I mainly interviewed my family and friends so they could get their picture in the paper! After college, I moved to Manhattan for eight years and finally to L.A., where I've been ever since and which I love so much I could lick the pavement.
MT: Do you return often or even infrequently to the city?
WILLIS: Only every few years but that might increase after this current trip. I always stay in the suburbs, where my family is, but I don't relate to that as "Detroit" at all. This time, I'm downtown. I'm going to speak at my high school, Mumford. I'm going to the City Council to get an official commendation. I'm going to all the radio stations. So I'm right in the heart of Detroit, closer to where I grew up, and I think I'll relate better and maybe want to come back more.
MT: Any other special fond memories of growing up in this area?
WILLIS: Going downtown to Hudson's every Saturday with my mother, and once Northland opened, switching to that mall. Northland took my breath away! All those stores in one place and Sanders [ice cream and chocolate shop], to boot. My interest in modern ways to serve the public started at Northland. My favorite restaurant, Darby's, on Wyoming and Seven Mile had the greatest deli ever on one side and a fancy restaurant on the other. It's still my standard for a great restaurant. I also loved the Michigan State Fair every summer. My never-ending love affair with junk food began there. I loved the giant stove on Woodward. And Vernors and Faygo, both of which I still drink!
MT: When you do return, does it sadden you at all to see how the city has changed?
WILLIS: Oh, my God, yes. But mine is a slight twist on the city being so broken-down that I don't recognize it. My family, all of whom live in surrounding areas, rarely even come into the city. So when I come home, it doesn't feel like the soulful Detroit I grew up in and could be Anywhere, U.S.A. I crave to go back into my old neighborhoods. I was born on Monterey and Linwood and spent from the age of 5 to 16 on Sorrento and Seven Mile. After that, my dad moved to Oak Park and then to Southfield and Birmingham. But I don't feel the soul past Eight Mile! I mean, I don't feel the vestiges of how the city was hopping in the '50s and '60s. As for Detroit itself — and how it seems so forgotten by so many people who live in areas surrounding it — it breaks my heart. I'm horrified when I see burnt-out buildings, overgrown empty lots and blocks of skeleton houses. I still have this memory of a happy, colorful and beat pulsing city.
MT: How did you break into songwriting as a professional career and succeed so well in L.A.? We all know it's not easy ...
WILLIS: I moved to New York City after college and got a job as a copywriter at Columbia and Epic Records writing ads and radio commercials for all the black and female acts, which were grouped together in the "minority" category. I started writing songs in 1972. To this day, I don't know how to read, write or play music, but I write the music as well as lyrics and arrange and produce. I realized from the time I was 7 years old that if I didn't know how to do something, I would just make up my own method and that was bound to lead to some very distinctive stuff that a trained person would never do. So I bought a piano and a tape recorder and just started singing into it and playing songs with one or two fingers, still the way I play today. I got a record deal on Epic with the first 10 songs I ever wrote. The album, Childstar, didn't make much noise but it did have one faithful fan named Bonnie Raitt. She asked me to write her a song and that's how I got my first cover in 1974 — "Got You On My Mind," on her Streetlights album. After that, I got a couple of songs cut a year but nothing big.
I moved to L.A. in 1975 because I thought, "If I'm going to starve to death, I'm going to do it where it's warm!" In early 1978, my best friends who were in Bette Midler's backup group, the Harlettes, got a record deal. They played several of my songs for their producer, David Rubinson, who was also producing Patti LaBelle. She heard my songs and flew me up to San Francisco where they were recording to put more of my songs down on demos. She was the first artist who started regularly doing my stuff. On that same trip she also introduced me to Herbie Hancock, who I wrote lyrics with for his Feets Don't Fail Me Now LP, when he first used a Vocorder. Between Patti, Herbie and my friend Carol Childs, a big music publisher at the time and dating Verdine White, master bass player in Earth Wind & Fire, it led in pretty quick succession to Maurice White, founder of Earth Wind & Fire, calling and asking me to write the next EWF album with him. We started "September" the first day we met.
At the beginning of 1978, I was as close to welfare as you could get — on food stamps and Medi-Cal. And by the end of that year I had sold over 10 million records — but was still on food stamps as royalties were so delayed. I got over 100 songs cut a year for the next few years after that. But I was getting very bored writing so many songs, so I started to paint and then do sets and make furniture. And that turned into a whole other art career that I merged with the music. Then in the early '90s, when I first got online, I integrated my interest in technology into everything.
MT: From the Friends theme to hits for Earth Wind & Fire is quite a leap.
WILLIS: I get bored very easily and hate writing the same song over and over again — a trap many songwriters fall into so they can keep getting songs cut. When I got bored with music, I started doing art, motorizing many of my pieces to move to the music. So visuals started influencing my music. I also jumped into cyberspace very early, in 1991, and, as I said, integrated that into the music. I've addressed Congress on cyberspace and was funded by Intel 15 years ago to build a prototype of my vision for a visual social network as well as the new forms of music, art and pop entertainment that would inhabit it. So my music serves many masters. Also, not knowing how to read, write or play makes for interesting twists and turns. The day I do something that has such a predictable pattern to it, it's over!
MT: Did you find it daunting to write for a musical based around The Color Purple? One of the jokes around here, in fact, has been: "Is there a song called 'Now I'm Going to Beat My Woman?'"
WILLIS: Not the first time I've heard the music parody thing, but that makes no sense to me. The Color Purple is a totally triumphant and jubilant story of a person who goes from nothing to something, changing herself and everyone around her on the way. It's human nature at its best. I've always viewed my hook in writing music as couching very serious topics in very upbeat music — like "Boogie Wonderland" is actually about someone on the brink of suicide who escapes to dance clubs to try and forget the mess that's their life — so the point gets across without having to pound someone over the head about it. The Color Purple contains themes that are the basis for all great songs — love, loss, triumphing over adversity, claiming your place in society as a woman, etc. Because Celie makes such an incredible transformation, we knew the audience had to know from the start of the show that this was someone with an incredible heart and sense of humor who had the capability of eventually triumphing. So the music reflects that. Some people think they're in for an evening of gloom and doom, but it's totally the opposite. The Color Purple is incredibly uplifting and life affirming. It's the ultimate mood drug.
MT: Are there plans for a movie version of the musical (a la The Producers and Hairspray)?
WILLIS: There certainly should be and there was supposed to be. But my lips must unfortunately remain sealed as to why the train left the track.
MT: What's next? Future plans? Hopes, dreams, ambitions?
WILLIS: I've always said I want to be the soul man's Martha Stewart and combine everything I do — music, art, video, technology, lifestyle and living period — into one organic flow of artistic expression. I've had an alter ego named Bubbles, the artist, since 1999. I "manage" her and she's sold over a thousand pieces of art and just recently started to sing. The first release, "It's a Woman Thang," a song-video-technology-party-matching products concept by Bubbles & Cheesecake [Cheesecake is Holly Palmer from Gnarls Barkley's live band] exploded on YouTube with close to a million views. It's also an official honoree in the 2008 Webbys awards. Cheesecake is the first in a series of collaborators from a variety of fields who want to be "Bubblelized" — a video concept with matching music, video, art, Web and physical components, products and parties. I love being Bubbles because I'm not writing a song for this person and designing a piece for that person or doing a set for a video or song that aren't mine. That's like saying only think with a quarter of your brain. I get to do my own stuff and combine everything I do into making the records, videos and Web components.
MT: What else is on your mind?
WILLIS: I've documented my creative process for over 30 years — if I don't have a video running, I at least audio tape everything, including conversations, work sessions, therapy, etc. I save every scrap that any idea was ever written on. I'm on a very conscious trip of self-evolution and that, ultimately, is the real art I'm working on. I constantly reuse my work in newer things I'm working on and this documentation is part of it. It's all escalating now for a TV linked to the Web extravaganza called Launching Allee, the ultimate documentation of my creative process as I try to be the most "me" I can be. Kind of like Project Runway, but I'm the only contestant, and it's a race to see if I can pull off being me with the career I really want before I run out of money. As with everything I do — all of which has this same basic message of "If you don't like your life, change it; you can do whatever if you want if you just have the balls" — I hope it encourages people to spring the lock on their cages and be the most "themselves" they can be. So it's a reality, self-help, how-to-throw-a-party kind of show.
MT: And, finally, what do you think of our current mayor? You don't have to answer that if you don't want to ...
WILLIS: I would say this to anyone in public office: Don't take the gig unless you zip it up and stay straight for your years in office. It wastes a massive amount of time and resources of the city you're supposed to be saving, not to mention the devastation it does to your own career. I actually think it's crazy that they come down on politicians for this. It's not like he was the first. But if you aspire to public life, you ought to be taking anti-Viagra pills.
Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Color Purple continues through Sunday, June 1, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Call 313-471-6611 for more info.